Just Keep Going

In winter the steep lane
is often icy
one in four, and today
it brings me
to my hands and
dodgy knees

absurd under trees
tall as the sky
a mile or two to go

I crawl for a while
then scrabble
to my feet but stay low,

young old man
I stop at a dry
stone wall then step

up
atop
a stile

owl call
far city
constellation

then down
to a field
that might be snow

nothing to do
but keep going
~Peter Sansom “In Winter the Steep Lane”

When faced with navigating an icy path ahead of me, I am rendered helpless. An icy path on a slope is even more intimidating.

Our farm is located on a hill, which is wonderful 50+ weeks out of the year, but in winter during arctic wind flow days, plus rain or sleet, it becomes a skating rink on an incline. Even the best traction devices won’t keep me on my feet.

I’m thankful my husband has much better balance than I do, but even the last ice storm was even too much for him. We don’t have much choice but to slide and crawl to our barnyard destination to complete our chores. It is exceedingly humbling to be brought to our knees, but that has always been the best position for sorely needed prayer and petition.

We pray to keep our aging bones intact.
We pray to keep our backs and noggins functional.
We pray for the thaw to come soon.

Despite an unsure landing for each footstep, there is nothing to do but keep going.
So we do.

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Naming Your Hopelessness

Instead of depression,
try calling it hibernation.
Imagine the darkness is a cave
in which you will be nurtured
by doing absolutely nothing.
Hibernating animals don’t even dream.
It’s okay if you can’t imagine
Spring. Sleep through the alarm
of the world. Name your hopelessness
a quiet hollow, a place you go
to heal, a den you dug,
Sweetheart, instead
of a grave.
~Andrea Gibson “Instead of Depression” from You Better Be Lightning

We didn’t say fireflies
but lightning bugs.
We didn’t say carousel
but merry-go-round.
Not seesaw,
teeter-totter
not lollipop,
sucker.
We didn’t say pasta, but
spaghetti, macaroni, noodles:
the three kinds.
We didn’t get angry:
we got mad.
And we never felt depressed
dismayed, disappointed
disheartened, discouraged
disillusioned or anything,
even unhappy:
just sad.
~Sally Fisher “Where I Come From”  from Good Question.

…if you could distinguish finer meanings within “Awesome” (happy, content, thrilled, relaxed, joyful, hopeful, inspired, prideful, adoring, grateful, blissful.. .), and fifty shades of “Crappy” (angry, aggravated, alarmed, spiteful, grumpy, remorseful, gloomy, mortified, uneasy, dread-ridden, resentful, afraid, envious, woeful, melancholy.. .), your brain would have many more options for predicting, categorizing, and perceiving emotion, providing you with the tools for more flexible and functional responses.
~Lisa Feldman Barrett from How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain

Our own experience with loneliness, depression, and fear can become a gift for others, especially when we have received good care. As long as our wounds are open and bleeding, we scare others away. But after someone has carefully tended to our wounds, they no longer frighten us or others….
We have to trust that our own bandaged wounds will allow us to listen to others with our whole being. That is healing.
— Henri Nouwen from Bread for the Journey

If there is anything I came to understand over the decades I served as a primary care physician, it is that every person experiences painful emotions that make them miserable, making it even more difficult to share with others. Sometimes those feelings build up such pressure that they leak out of our cells as physical symptoms: headaches, muscle tightness, stomach upset, hypertension. Other times they are so overwhelming we can no longer function in a day to day way – described clinically as rage, panic, mood disorder, depression, self-destructive, suicidal.

Somehow we’ve lost permission to be sad.
Just sad. Sometimes unbearably, hopelessly sad.
 
Sadness happens to us all, some longer than others, some worse than others, some deeper than others. What makes sadness more real and more manageable is if we can say it out loud — whatever ‘sad’ means to us on a given day and if we describe our feelings in detail, explaining to others who can understand because they’ve been there too, then they can listen and help.

Painful emotions don’t always need a “fix” in the short term, particularly chemical, but that is why I was usually consulted. Alcohol, marijuana and other self-administered drugs tend to be the temporary anesthesia that people seek to stop feeling anything at all but it can erupt even stronger later.

Sometimes an overwhelming feeling just needs an outlet so it no longer is locked up, unspoken and silent, threatening to leak out in ways that tear us up and pull us apart.

Sometimes we need a healing respite/hibernation, with permission to sleep through the world’s alarms for a time. At times, medical management with antidepressants can be incredibly helpful along with talk therapy.

It helps to find words to express how things felt before this sadness, where you are now in the midst of it and where you wish you could be rather than being swallowed by sorrow. Healing takes time and like anything else that is broken, it hurts as it repairs. Armed with that self-knowledge and some gentle compassion, tomorrow and the next day and the next might feel a little less hopeless and overwhelming.

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Dawn on our Darkness: An Abrupt Calling

Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
so Biblically
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love

so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years
you simply don’t want to
any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

~David Whyte from “TrueLove” in The Sea in You

When the mystery of God’s love breaks through into my consciousness, do I run from it? Or am I virgin enough to respond from my deepest, truest self, and say a “yes” that will change me forever?
~Kathleen Norris from Amazing Grace – A Vocabulary of Faith

Again and again, we are called to do something that takes all our courage – we feel we will sink and drown, perishing in our humiliation, our weakness, our sheer lack of faith in what we are able to accomplish.

Eventually, we tire of the fear of drowning so we just say yes to the invitation to do this hard thing and we take the hand that guides us home.

He calls on us to trust He’ll reach out and hold us up when our faith, and our feet, waver and stumble.

We are not left to drown.

This year’s Advent theme “Dawn on our Darkness” is taken from this 19th century Christmas hymn:

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning,
dawn on our darkness and lend us your aid.
Star of the east, the horizon adorning,
guide where our infant Redeemer is laid.
~Reginald Heber -from “Brightest and Best”

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The Child I Was Calls Out to Me

It’s in the perilous boughs of the tree   
out of blue sky    the wind   
sings loudest surrounding me.


And solitude,   a wild solitude
’s reveald,   fearfully,   high     I’d climb   
into the shaking uncertainties,

part out of longing,   part     daring my self,
part to see that
widening of the world,   part

to find my own, my secret
hiding sense and place, where from afar   
all voices and scenes come back

—the barking of a dog,   autumnal burnings,
far calls,   close calls—   the boy I was
calls out to me

here the man where I am   “Look!
I’ve been where you


most fear to be.”
~Robert Duncan “Childhood’s Retreat”

And this is where we went, I thought,
Now here, now there, upon the grass
Some forty years ago.

The days being short now, simply I had come
To gaze and look and stare upon
The thought of that once endless maze of afternoons.
But most of all I wished to find the places where I ran

What’s happened to our boys that they no longer race
And stand them still to contemplate Christ’s handiwork:
His clear blood bled in syrups from the lovely wounded trees?
Why only bees and blackbird winds and bending grass?
No matter. Walk. Walk, look, and sweet recall.

I came upon an oak where once when I was twelve
I had climbed up and screamed for Skip to get me down.
It was a thousand miles to earth. I shut my eyes and yelled.
My brother, richly compelled to mirth, gave shouts of laughter
And scaled up to rescue me.
“What were you doing there?” he said.
I did not tell. Rather drop me dead.
But I was there to place a note within a squirrel nest
On which I’d written some old secret thing now long forgot.

{Now} I lay upon the limb a long while, thinking.
I drank in all the leaves and clouds and weathers
Going by as mindless
As the days.
What, what, what if? I thought. But no. Some forty years beyond!

I brought forth:
The note.

I opened it. For now I had to know.
I opened it, and wept. I clung then to the tree
And let the tears flow out and down my chin.
Dear boy, strange child, who must have known the years
And reckoned time and smelled sweet death from flowers
In the far churchyard.
It was a message to the future, to myself.
Knowing one day I must arrive, come, seek, return.
From the young one to the old. From the me that was small
And fresh to the me that was large and no longer new.
What did it say that made me weep?

I remember you.
I remember you.
~Ray Bradbury from “Remembrance”

Not long ago, we drove the country roads where I grew up,
over sixty years later,
and though some trees are taller, and others cut down –
it looked just as I remembered.
The scattered houses on farms still standing, a bit more worn,
the fields open and flowing as always,
the turns and bends, the ups and downs of the asphalt lanes unchanged
where once I tread with bicycle tires and sneakered feet.

My own childhood home a different color
but so familiar as we drive slowly by,
full of memories of laughter and games,
long winter days and longer summer evenings
full of its share of angry words and tears
and eventual forgiveness.

I too left notes to my future self, in old barns, and lofts,
and yes, in trees,
but won’t go back to retrieve them.
I remember what I wrote.
My young heart tried to imagine itself decades hence,
with so much to fear – bomb drills and shelters in the ground,
such anxiety and joy would pass through me like pumping blood,
wondering what wounds would I bear and bleed,
what love and tears would trace my aging face?

I have not forgotten that I wish to be remembered.

No, I have never forgotten
that I remember that child:
this is me,
as I was, and, deep down, still am.

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The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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Things That Could Have Happened, But Didn’t

“Supposing a tree fell down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?”

“Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought.

Piglet was comforted by this.
~A.A. Milne from The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh

When I was five, my father,
who loved me, ran me over
with a medium-sized farm tractor.

I was lucky though; I tripped
and slipped into a small depression,
which caused the wheels to tread

lightly on my leg, which had already
been broken (when I was three)
by a big dog, who liked to play rough,

and when I was nine, I fell
from the second-floor balcony
onto the cement by the back steps,

and as I went down I saw my life go by
and thought: “This is exactly how
Wiley Coyote feels, every time!”

Luckily, I mostly landed on my feet,
and only had to go on crutches
for a few months in the fifth grade—

and shortly after that, my father,
against his better judgment,
bought the horse I’d wanted for so long.

All the rest of my luck has to do
with highways and ice—things that
could have happened, but didn’t.
~Joyce Sutphen, “My Luck” from First Words

at twenty

I understand catastrophic thinking,
particularly when “in the moment” tragedies
play out real-time in the palm of my hand
and I feel helpless to do anything
but watch it unfold.

Those who know me well
know I fret and worry
better than most.
Medical training only makes this worse.
I’m taught to first think disastrously.
That is what I have done for a living:
to always be ready for the worse case scenario
and simply assume it will happen.

Sometimes it does happen
and no amount of wishing it away will work.

When I rise to face a day of uncertainty
as we all must do every morning~
after careful thought,
I reach for the certainty I am promised
over the uncertainty I can only imagine:

What is my only comfort in life and in death? 
That I am not my own, but belong
—body and soul, in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Supposing it didn’t” — says our Lord
(and we are comforted by this)
but even if it did …
even if it did –
as awful things sometimes do –
we are never left on our own to deal with it.



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Postpone Until Monday

I was relief, once, for a doctor on vacation
and got a call from a man on a window sill.
This was New York, a dozen stories up.
He was going to kill himself, he said.
I said everything I could think of.
And when nothing worked, when the guy
was still determined to slide out that window
and smash his delicate skull
on the indifferent sidewalk, “Do you think,”
I asked, “you could just postpone it
until Monday, when Dr. Lewis gets back?”


The cord that connected us—strung
under the dirty streets, the pizza parlors, taxis,
women in sneakers carrying their high heels,
drunks lying in piss—that thick coiled wire
waited for the waves of sound.


In the silence I could feel the air slip
in and out of his lungs and the moment
when the motion reversed, like a goldfish
making the turn at the glass end of its tank.
I matched my breath to his, slid
into the water and swam with him.
“Okay,” he agreed.

~Ellen Bass “Phone Therapy” from Mules of Love

Love your neighbor as yourself is part of the great commandment.

The other way to say it is, ‘Love yourself as your neighbor.’ Love yourself not in some egocentric, self-serving sense but love yourself the way you would love your friend in the sense of taking care of yourself, nourishing yourself, trying to understand, comfort, strengthen yourself.

Ministers in particular, people in the caring professions in general, are famous for neglecting their selves with the result that they are apt to become in their own way as helpless and crippled as the people they are trying to care for and thus no longer selves who can be of much use to anybody. 

It means pay mind to your own life, your own health and wholeness, both for your own sake and ultimately for the sake of those you love too. Take care of yourself so you can take care of them.

A bleeding heart is of no help to anybody if it bleeds to death.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling Secrets

We are reminded every time we hear safety instructions on an airplane before a flight takes off: “in the event of a sudden pressure change in the cabin, oxygen masks will appear – remember to put your own on before helping others with their masks.”   

If we aren’t able to breathe ourselves, we won’t last long enough to be of assistance to anyone around us.  We must breathe, we must stay afloat to save the drowning. Too often,  sacrificing our self-care threatens others’ well-being.

A headline appeared in my email from the American Psychiatric Association this morning: “Physicians Experience the Highest Suicide Rate of Any Profession” – there is rampant depression and burn-out among those who should know best how to recognize and respond to the danger signs — for women physicians, nearly 1 out of 5 are afflicted.   Yet the work load only seems to increase, not diminish, the legal and moral responsibility weighs more heavily, and the hours available for sleep and respite shrink.  In forty plus years of practicing medicine (my father liked to remind me “when are you going to stop ‘practicing’ and actually ‘do’ it?”),  the work never got easier, only harder and heavier to carry.

I saw suicidal patients every day and am immensely grateful I myself have never been suicidal, thank God, but anxiety is embedded deep in my DNA from my non-physician fretful farmer ancestors.  Anxiety becomes the fuel and driver of the relentless physician journey on long lonely roads, spurring us to stay awake too many hours when we should be resting our eyes and taking a break to breathe, just breathe.

However, we are trained to respond to our own anxiety from the first day in anatomy class:
“and while you, Miss Polis, are trying to think of the name of that blood vessel, your patient is exsanguinating in front of you– drip, drip, drip….”

Terror-stricken at the thought I was inadequate to the task of saving a life, it took years for me to realize the name of the vessel didn’t bloody matter as long as I knew instinctively to clamp it, compress it, or by the love of the Living God, transfuse my own blood from my bleeding heart into my patient’s.

I learned those many years ago:
to save another life, I must first preserve my own.

Your bleeding heart, in your hands –
It’s been there a while you’re just now noticing –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to attend to –

Your bleeding heart, let it go –
You feel like it’s hopeless, but you never know –
I wish I could help you –
The way that you want me to –
We all have our own bleeding heart to mend
~Kim Taylor
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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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Wondering How She Came to Be There

She wasn’t looking
when they took this picture:
sitting on the grass
in her bare feet
wearing a cotton dress,
she stares off to the side
watching something on the lawn
the camera didn’t catch.
What was it?
A ladybug? A flower?
Judging from her expression,
possibly nothing at all,
or else
the lawn was like a mirror,
and she sat watching herself,
wondering who she was
and how she came to be there
sitting in this backyard,
wearing a cheap, white dress,
imagining that tomorrow
would be like all her yesterdays,
while her parents chatted
and watched, as I do
years later,
too distantly to interfere.
~Dana Gioia, “Photograph of My Mother as a Young Girl” from Daily Horoscope

Yesterday was my mother Elna Schmitz Polis’ 102nd birthday though she left us behind nearly 14 years ago. I wrote the poem below while she was fading from this life.

Vigil at my mother’s bedside

Lying still, your mouth gapes open as
I wonder if you breathe your last.
Your hair a white cloud
Your skin baby soft
No washing, digging, planting gardens
Or raising children
Anymore.

Where do your dreams take you?
At times you wake in your childhood home of
Rolling wheat fields, boundless days of freedom.
Other naps take you to your student and teaching days
Grammar and drama, speech and essays.
Yesterday you were a young mother again
Juggling babies, farm and your wistful dreams.

Today you looked about your empty nest
Disguised as hospital bed,
Wondering aloud about
Children grown, flown.
You still control through worry
and tell me:
Travel safely
Get a good night’s sleep
Take time to eat
Call me when you get there

I dress you as you dressed me
I clean you as you cleaned me
I love you as you loved me
You try my patience as I tried yours.
I wonder if I have the strength to
Mother my mother
For as long as she needs.

When I tell you the truth
Your brow furrows as it used to do
When I disappointed you~
This cannot be
A bed in a room in a sterile place
Waiting for death
Waiting for heaven
Waiting

And I tell you:
Travel safely
Eat, please eat
Sleep well
Call me when you get there.

Dad and Mom in their early thirties
Mom’s favorite song to sing
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The Stones Themselves Will Start to Sing: Guide Me Through the Gloom

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.
~American Folk Hymn

Our neighbor Linda died yesterday after being cared for in hospice for the past several days. Her life journey was sadly shortened by the gloom and toll of early-onset dementia.

Even as her memory developed enlarging gaps and holes over the past few years, Jesus was always her refuge when she was lost in her confusion. Linda never lost her awe of God’s goodness, and never forgot His love for her. Even when fearful of the unknown or unremembered, she was held fast by Jesus.

Worshipping weekly with her husband Steve and extended family members brought her immense joy and comfort. She smiled broadly, singing faithfully the hymns she had known for decades.

Her call home is bittersweet for Steve, along with her family and friends who have supported her remaining at home during her last few vulnerable years. There is a toll and gloom in watching a beloved person slowly fade from this life, like a wave retreating from this shore to crest on some other far-off place.

What we who mourn know is that Linda was greeted on that other shore by those who have gone before her, assuring her she no longer would wonder where she was or be worried about what comes next.

She will forever know the joy of worship and the assurance of belonging. After all, there is no gloom in heaven, only the light of holy love.

This year’s Lenten theme for Barnstorming is a daily selection from songs and hymns about Christ’s profound sacrifice on our behalf.

If we remain silent about Him, the stones themselves will shout out and start to sing (Luke 19:40).

In His name, may we sing…

Death shall not destroy my comfort,
Christ shall guide me thro’ the gloom;
Down he’ll send some heav’nly convoy,
To escort my spirit home.

(Refrain):
Oh, hallelujah! How I Love my Savior,
Oh, hallelujah! That I Do.
Oh, Hallelujah! How I love my Savior!
Mourners, you may love him too.

Jordan’s stream shall not o’erflow me,
While my Savior’s by my side;
Canaan, Canaan lies before me!
Soon I’ll cross the swelling tide.

See the happy spirits waiting,
On the banks beyond the stream!
Sweet responses still repeating,
“Jesus! Jesus!” is their theme.